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Atheism and Religion in 19th and 20th Century Russia and Russian Literature Essay

Updated on May 8, 2013

The Works I'll be Exploring

Russian literature has had many great writers who have both expressed deep rooted atheism in their writing from many years of state mandated atheism during the Stalin era and deep religious roots from years of the church and state being intermixed during the ruling of the tsars. This mixing of orthodox religion and state mandated atheism has led to ambivalence towards religion which can be experienced in the Russian literature of the late 19th and early 20th century. I will be examining this theme in the works One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by A. Anatoli Kuznetsov, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. These three works span a large portion of Russian history and politics and their writing shows the real mixed feelings towards religion during the time of each work’s writing.

Orthodox Church in Russia
Orthodox Church in Russia
Nicholas II
Nicholas II

A Short History of Religion and Atheism in Russia

The last autocrat of Russia, Emperor Nicholas II, as well as his father and predecessor, Alexander III, were devout Orthodox Christians and all of Nicholas II’s political activity he viewed as a religious service (Firsov 79). Nicholas II was tsar of Russia from 1894 until the monarchy was abolished in 1917. Nicholas II had a great love of the common people which stemmed from his deep religious roots. Nicholas was also certain of the simple people’s love for him because of his religious devotion and belief that as long as faith prevailed in Russia, so would the autocracy. Even as there were revolutionary upheavals during the early 1900’s his faith in the people did not waver (Firsov 81).

However, the revolution was coming and people’s true faith was wavering. One of Tsar Nicholas II’s generals, Kireev, noted in a diary that there began to be instances of peasants “de-baptizing” and noted that the change in faith came from certain aspects of the church.

“When it sees the Church giving [the peasants] a stone instead of bread and then demanding…formalities…reciting prayers incomprehensible to common folk, when it is told of fantastical miracles, the whole of it solemnly collapses… See how easily the slender, fragile membrane of Christianity falls away from our peasants.” (Firsov 82)

Vladimir Lenin
Vladimir Lenin

This move of the church from practical human rights policy to mysticism and formalities drove the peasants, who before had loved their religion and their country, to begin revolting against a state supported religion. Nicholas believed deeply in fate and the more mystical side of religion and depended on his faith to stay the ruler of Russia. Nicholas’s losses during the Russo-Japanese War and World War I (upwards of 3 million Russians were killed) led to a loss of support from his army and he was overthrown and executed shortly after under the supposed orders of the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin who led the Bolshevik revolution and began the Socialist Federative Soviet Republic and later the Soviet Union (“Nicholas II”).

The ideals of Marxist-Leninism that Lenin endowed onto Russia were the rise of the simple man and the peasantry. Also, Lenin’s social ideas were steeped in atheism as Marx stated that, “Religion is the opium of the people” and he believed firmly that churches only served to defend exploitation and confuse the working class (Lenin). The rise of Stalin after the death of Lenin lead to the many abuses and exploitations of common people to create a new industrial society that Stalin wanted for Russia. During Stalin’s rule dissenters of Stalinism, and especially people in the capitalist imperialist class, were sent to prison camps to work or be killed to create his idea of a classless society necessary for socialism to function properly. One of these prison camps is the setting in which One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich takes place.

During the Nazi invasion of Russia, even more Russians were killed during massacres. This is especially true of the Babi Yar massacre in which nearly 34 thousand Jews were killed in a single operation that took place while German forces occupied Kiev.

After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev became Premier of Russia. He slowly began to replace harsh Stalinist policies with more liberal and open policies. However, Russia remained a communist nation until the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989. The use of Marxism-Leninism atheism in Russia had the almost opposite effect that the mysticism of religion had on the Russian people. In fact, many of the converts to religion in the mid to late 20th century came from strong atheist backgrounds (Kowalewski 428).

The Russia of Changing Ideas

These three works are really representative of the ambivalence towards religion in Russia during this time period. The first piece, The Death of Ivan Ilyich represents a time of a struggle for religion and faith of a man within Russia during the time of the tsars. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich shows the true conflict between religion and forced atheism of the time of the Soviets but also the struggle for hope for those who were imprisoned. Finally Babi Yar is indicative of the forced atheism itself. The way in which Babi Yar is written shows little to no emotion or spiritual connection with the people in it. The only religious moments we see in it are through his grandmother’s traditions. Thus we see three periods of faith and atheism within Russia: Faithful yet struggling, strong ambivalence towards religion, and finally forced atheism. These periods of intertwined state religion and state atheism led to ambivalence towards religion in Russia’s greatest literature and throughout its people.

Works Cited

Firsov, Sergei. "Emperor Nicholas II as an Orthodox Tsar."Russian Studies in History. 50.4 (2012): 79-90. Print.

Kowalewski, David. "Protest for Religious Rights in the USSR: Characteristics and Consequences." Russian Review. 39.4 (1980): 426-441. Print

Lenin, Vladimir. "The Attitude of the Workers' Party to Religion." Lenin Collected Works. 15. (1973): 402-413. Web. 21 Apr. 2013.

"Nicholas II (1868-1918)." BBC History. BBC, n.d. Web. 21 Apr 2013. <>.


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